New small business acknowledges value of everyone

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After 29 years in corporate America in Michigan, Laurie Brown had had enough. The job was good but no longer fulfilling and, after moving to Bluffton in September 2014, Brown sought a way to satisfy the soft spot in her heart for helping people.

Out of that desire grew Bluffton-based Aunt Laurie's, a source of gift baskets for all occasions. To fill those baskets, she sought organizations that employed people with disabilities to produce such things as lotions, soaps and candles.

With themed gifts for new homeowners to dog lovers to the latest creation - a Bluffton-focused selection - the baskets were one way Brown could meet her goal.

"The vision of Aunt Laurie's is to inspire people to acknowledge the value of everyone; every human being has value. We'd like that to come through the passion of our efforts," said Brown. "The more product I sell, the more people I help. It's really important."

The gift baskets evolved out of conversations with her SCORE small business mentor with whom she had brainstormed numerous ideas.

The result led Brown to Melissa Weber, center manager for the South Carolina Vocational Rehabilitation Job Readiness Training Center in Beaufort. One mission of the training center is helping those who are preparing to enter the workforce for the first time.

"They basically learn how to work before going to work," said Weber. Eventually, the training center became the Aunt Laurie's distribution center.

During one conversation, Brown noticed several baskets in Weber's office. Weber said they had been made for a previous training center client who had moved on.

"She suggested I use them for my project," Brown said. "One thing led to another and I said, 'Yeah, it's handmade, it's local, clients learn skills. It's perfect.' "

Then Brown headed to Hilton Head Island and asked members of Programs for Exceptional People to help. The PEP Potters create the bowls, tiles and dishes that go into each basket.

Other basket elements come from participants at Life Roots in Rio Rancho, N.M., who create handmade greeting cards. Lambs Farm employees in Libertyville, Ill., make large dog biscuits and tin candles. Workers at Extraordinary Ventures Inc. in Chapel Hill, N.C., make scented soy candles, soaps and scrubs.

The baskets are still made at the Beaufort training center under the guidance of Oliver Bailey, who refers to himself as "The Gullah Man."

A certified carpenter, Bailey moves with precision around the tools in the carpentry shop of the center. It is his job to teach the clients how to use the equipment and to make the small, medium and large baskets.

Once the baskets are built, other clients fill them with orders. Some finished baskets are shipped directly from the center to locations around the country. Many are available in local stores, such as Bluffton's Studio B.

Brown makes no money from her venture and, in fact, barely covers costs for the project, she said. Nearly everything she makes in sales goes back to the organizations, which then pay their workers for making the products. She does set aside a small portion of the money for another pet charity, Leader Dogs for the Blind.

"The whole goal was to start a business that gave back to the community, and as much as possible help anyone who has a disability," said Brown.

For more information, visit www.auntlauries.com.

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.

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